If someone came out of Oliver Stone’s Savages and told me they thought it was a pile of inane hogwash, I’m not sure I’d care to argue with them. This is a barbaric film, both in attitude and in content, and it’s the attitude part that swept me up from first frame to last. From the marketing Universal put out there, it wasn’t difficult to surmise Stone’s ultra-violent modus operandi here — a half-dozen brutal beheadings within the first couple minutes set the tone pretty accurately — but even more striking is how sentimental he is toward the material, often pausing to photograph Blake Lively in a beachside black-and-white, with the soft chords of Adam Peters’s original music filling the background.
Adapted from Don Winslow’s much-respected 2010 novel of the same name, Stone, co-writing with Shane Salerno and Winslow himself, tells the story of a Laguna Beach-based love triangle sent into turmoil by a vicious Mexican drug cartel. As narrated by O, short for Ophelia (Lively), the central trinity involves her and two hunks who, in addition to being best friends, are weirdly compliant to the idea of sharing O in the bedroom. “There’s something wrong with your love story, baby,” says Salma Hayek’s Elena (the queen of the opposing cartel) to O over dinner, and we’re inclined to agree with her.
The two guys, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch), are very much opposites, and each fulfill a side of O’s romantic desires. Ben’s a Berkeley grad with an expertise in biology, while Chon’s an ex-soldier and former Navy SEAL. Fusing Ben’s knowledge of plants with Chon’s overseas access to top-of-the-line seeds allows the pair to construct a marijuana-dealing business of the highest order. Their THC levels are off the charts, and with Ben’s friendly, environmentalist vibe, they’re able to coast along financially without coming up against many violent obstacles. But when they do occasionally materialize, Chon’s there to beat ‘em up.
As blood-coated as Savages is, I suspect the degree of interest in the three main characters is where the film is likely to lose some people. Johnson, in particular, isn’t always able to juice his nice-guy assignment with the required urgency, and though I personally fell for Lively’s enigmatic distance, it’s not inconceivable to imagine people writing her role off from the very first voiced-over line. As for Kitsch, the back-to-back bombing of Battleship and John Carter has made for a rough year so far. He’s more successful here, really nailing the tough-guy machismo angle and even embodying an exciting soullessness late in the film, but it’s hard to say if this effort will do much to boost his commercial profile.
On top of the uneven writing, where Lively and company have trouble holding up is when they’re pitted against — and, naturally, compared to — the supporting cast, which is equipped with one devilishly-done turn after another. Benicio Del Toro steals every second he’s a part of, playing Lado, the cartel’s merciless enforcer. He struts around the sun-smothered setting under the guise of a lawn-cleaning service, and every time he stops his crew in front of a house, stroking his come-at-me moustache with deranged ferocity, it’s terrifying.
John Travolta’s an utter riot, too, as a Drug Enforcement Administration employee stuck skin-deep in both sides of this drugwar. It’s a pleasure to observe Travolta as he goes from slick deal-cutter to paranoid family-man. Adding to the film’s fuel is recent Oscar nominee Demián Bichir (A Better Life) as the cartel’s legal advisor and, of course, the aforementioned Hayek, who tows the line between ruthless moneymaker and emotionally crippled mother-figure with an irresistible playfulness.
Stone pulls a questionable narrative double-take late in Savages that’s sure to be another potential turn-off for viewers, but once I got past the in-the-moment weirdness of it, I accepted it with the same frenzied freedom with which I accepted everything else in the film. From the get-go, Stone’s performing with a pure maniacal glee, and the more you’re willing to submit to that, the more gratification you’ll find. Because there really is a lot to feel in Savages — from gore-soaked shock to hair-floating-in-the-wind fragility — and it’s not worth it to come out unmoved, pretending to be above it all.
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